Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dharma Mittra, oh my

The lotus flower rises up through mud to blossom pure and clean. 

I tried out a new studio tonight because a yogi in Colorado told me his teacher’s style was influenced by Dharma Mittra. The name was familiar to me, and then I remembered why: One of my friends from my children’s certification program is a teacher at Dharma Yoga in New York.

With that connection in mind, and because I am always curious to learn from new teachers (especially from teachers who’ve been practicing for more than fifty years), I looked up a schedule as soon as I got back to Manhattan, and tonight I took a class with the famous man himself.

Sri Dharma Mittra is in his seventies and way better at yoga than me. His class tonight was open level, but hardly for beginners–we started off with some nice oms, then shook out our shoulders and wrists, rolled our necks, and embarked on a brisk series of sun salutations that would have left me in the dust if not for my daily practice.

Next up were some simple twists and stretches that we held until they become complex, and then came a fantastic transition I hope I someday get to teach: We sat into a bouncing chair, ducked into a seated position, and rolled straight back into a shoulder stand. And Sri Dharma didn’t instruct us in the details, either, so if you didn’t already know what to do, good luck. However, the vast majority of the fifty plus people in my class tonight had no trouble following his guidance.

Despite being keenly aware that I was borderline out of my league, I managed to keep up with the sequence pretty well as it went on, and even learned a new pose that does an excellent job of gently stretching an old groin injury. So even though it was hard to understand everything the teacher was saying, I felt confident in his wisdom and more or less able to do as he said.

And then he told us to get into a headstand. A headstand, just like that! And what’s more, everyone did! I haven’t felt so overwhelmed in a long time. I know headstand is a master pose, and I know that technically anyone can do it. But not me, not yet. We were taught them in my training, and I do remember the thrill of (assisted) success, but I haven’t focused on making headstands part of my practice, because to learn, you have to fall, and frankly, I’d rather not.

However, as I looked around the large space, hoping to catch the eye of another befuddled yogi who might be sitting out the pose, all I saw were rows and rows of gorgeous headstands, and a handful of people doing their best to get there. So I tried.

And I fell. I did. But I fell in the most exciting of ways–after kicking up and then over into a backbend. Which means, technically, for a nanosecond, I must have been in a headstand! It was amazing, confronting my fear like that, so boldly, so calmly, despite my pounding heart. I simply tried and tried again until my interlocked fingers felt comfortable cradling my head in just the right way, and I was stable, and I could walk my legs in, and gently kick, and go nowhere, and then kick up a little more, and still nothing, and then kick yet again and this time–whoa! oops!–over and into a backbend.

How. Cool. We followed up with some bridges and wheels (I used to fear wheel as well, but I worked through that in teacher training), and then locust with partners, and bow pose, and some kind of twist that resulted in people lifting their legs and torsos onto their arms–I was not one of those people–and then eventually the most welcome savasana ever followed by a closing round of oms.

I left the room shaking, and grateful for it. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so challenged, and I really did discover some things about my breath and body, which is of course the whole point. I even got an internal tattoo–Sri Dharma asked us at one point to envision a flower on the inside of our third eyes, and I instantly saw a white rose, and then he specified a lotus, so the flower shifted into a big water lily, and it stayed there for the rest of class. Every time I reached for focus, the blossom on my forehead gave me something to study, a beacon of clarity and confidence. I know it sounds a little out there, but it really feels like I took the flower with me when I left, like its beauty is still present and enhancing my intuition.

Maybe it is.

Sharing light

I’ve said before that sharing is caring. But in order to share you have to let your own walls down, to be willing to give before you receive. I find this challenging. Not so much the willing to give part–I’m pretty skilled with that. But letting my walls down? That scares the crap out of me, and yet, it is absolutely necessary if I am to teach from my heart. But I am getting better, and it has to do with light and energy.

Cities have energy. I am most familiar with New York‘s, but also know Chicago and L.A. and Dallas and a few others. This past week I experienced Denver, and with it, a curious sense of openness. It’s hard to describe how vibrant the air felt there. The sun was literally brighter, clearer, and I could feel it in my bones.

I love the sun so much, am deeply drawn to its relentless light and warmth. And whether my desire is because I am a spiritual being who is attracted to a source of divine radiant energy or because I am a biological organism who is programmed to gravitate toward a source of vitamin D—or both—I know that the fulfillment feels real. So being in a place where the sun was bold and clear as opposed to dulled and blurred was thrilling.

But it wasn’t just the brilliant sunshine that was different energetically in Denver. Something about the way citizens interacted–less hustle, more smiles–was calming and reassuring. I especially noticed this in the yoga room. I should clarify that I have never, ever, felt mistreated or unwelcome in a New York City yoga studio. But I have definitely felt intimidated. And for whatever reason, that wasn’t the case in Denver, even though the place I practiced certainly had the hallmarks of intimidation: Sanskrit words painted on the walls, a shrine featuring framed photos of gurus, the smell of incense, etc.

As my teacher for the morning led our class, I found myself envying his spirit. His teaching style was not mine, but I very much admired his attitude. He was entirely at ease, informal, and practically glowing with love. His light was shining full and strong–a young, joyous presence that I know is also inside me.

And by recognizing our common core, I realized there is nothing stopping me from sharing myself the way he did. No reason I can’t be as open, kind, and loving in New York. No need to be intimidated by any surroundings if I’m confident with what’s within.

I’m sure I brought some of Denver’s light with me back to Manhattan, but I’m even surer that I can shine wherever I go. Feeling connected to the universe and being in tune with the energy around me makes it much easier to lower my guard, to let down my walls, and to teach with my true spirit.

 

How to salute the sun

Ever since I started my own daily practice, I’ve been meaning to post about the details of surya namaskar, or the standard pattern of poses that comprise the sun salutation. However, I found a page today that serves as a good resource, so rather than paraphrase, I will just thank Kitty Williams for her work and link to her explanation:

Honor the Sun–and Yourself–with a Daily Yoga Sun Salutation

The sequence she diagrams is the sequence I follow, except that in Step 9, I keep the same leg back as I do in Step 4. That is, if I step my right foot back into high lunge, I then step my left foot forward after downward dog. This maintains emphasis on one side (the right leg is long the whole time)–which means a second set with emphasis on the left side is required to complete a cycle. The video Kitty links to at the bottom of her post, which I am embedding here, shows exactly how I do my daily salutes (including the need to pick up my foot for adjustments), minus the beach:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGXgoW70IB0&feature=player_embedded]

Summer solstice celebration

The longest day of the year. The first day of summer. The sun at its highest and strongest, offering energy for growth and fulfillment.

I like all that the summer solstice represents, but I especially like that for the last few years, the summer solstice has meant the opportunity to do yoga in Times Square. Finding a personal practice in a public space embodies so much of what yoga means to me, and I was grateful for the chance to shine my light in a crowd of thousands yesterday.

I’ve been doing my fair share of outdoor yoga lately–a Chelsea Piers practice at the NYC extension of Wanderlust, then a free class in a nearby park offered by a local studio, and of course my own versions of asana (heavy on the savasana) when I’m catching sun on the weekends. But nothing tops Times Square.

If New York City is a massive energy force, Times Square is its epicenter. I often avoid the area–too chaotic, too crowded–but on a yoga mat it feels like home. Which of course, it is, with the earth below me and the sky above me. Still, to feel confident and at peace on a sea of cement, surrounded by the biggest of billboards and the flashiest of lights, is truly an “absurd luxury,” in the words of the teacher who led the opening breath work.

I knew people were watching. (I scoped out the scene myself during my lunch break, observing a class led by a Bikram teacher I know.) And yes, that was a little weird. During my teacher training, observing the practices of other students was a definite privilege. But in Times Square it was simply inevitable. The movements of the seven thousand people who chose to participate throughout the day-long event were shown on large Jumbotrons on the walls of tall buildings and also streamed live on the internet. Anonymity was for the most part preserved, but privacy was impossible.

But my yoga is always mine, and when I surrender to the stillness within me, I can relax, whether I’m meditating in my bedroom or surrounded by strangers on the pavement of a city street. And so I let my self-consciousness float up to the clouds as I went through the asanas, and I had a gratifying class. The teacher, Douglass Stewart, did a lovely job of accommodating yogis of all levels and providing accessible guidance while grounding his words firmly in the foundations of yogic philosophy.

And instead of fretting that the occasionally spiritual wording would turn off novices and onlookers, I allowed myself to benefit from the wisdom Douglass offered, to let his words resonate with the truths in my heart. Because when I’m not worrying about what others think, I do feel the vibrations under my body. I am aware of stillness within movement, and yes, I think chanting “om” does something real.

Which is why a grin slid across my face when near the end we tried an om experiment: After three organized oms, we were told to let loose and om at our own pace. The eventual overlap of chants would then create an unceasing cycle of sound that could go on forever–we weren’t given a time limit or an endpoint to aim for. I’d done something similar once before, during my teacher training, and I described it then as “a heavy, hearty vibration of humanity and comfort.”

This time was a little different. When we were guided the sounds were full and thick, but as I continued I began to feel isolated and alone. I could only hear my own voice–I don’t think the people around me felt as comfortable raising theirs. But rather than stop and feel awkward, I remembered my initial discomfort back when chanting was unfamiliar, and I empathized with my peers. It’s better, I think, when we can lift our voices together, but we are together regardless. So I sat tall, breathed deep, and omed loud enough for everyone.

Giving service

I was recently recruited by an organization who’s hiring. I was inspired by the opportunity and so I applied, and now I am in the delicious stage where I don’t yet know what’s decided. But I am hopeful, because I believe the job will allow me to serve my country by doing something that I love, and intuition tells me I will find the work fulfilling.

Preparing my application got me thinking a lot about service. I’ve quoted George Bernard Shaw before and still agree that the true joy in life is “being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” And then the other day Stephen Colbert told college students that “Service is love made visible.”

I want to share my talents and abilities with love, and more and more I’m realizing that I can serve myself and those around me with yoga off the mat as well as on. Yoga is so much more than the stretching exercises that comprise asana. Yoga is a philosophy, a state of mind that brings peace to those who practice.

I’ve been trying not to think too much about teaching yoga right now. I have a weekend training workshop in a couple of weeks, and a vacation before then, and I am very happy with my life, so I am not worried. If I get hired for my dream service job, I will bring my yoga with me, showing by example how yoga can improve focus and concentration along with relieving workplace stress. And if I don’t get hired, I will continue exploring ways to be of service to my community. Increase my focus on bringing yoga into schools.

Regardless of what’s next, I am proud of myself for applying for something with passion. It is refreshing and reassuring to remember that there is no pressure for me to attain anything other than contentment. It feels good to be comfortable with uncertainty, to have faith in the future I cannot see. Life is so rich and I am full of gratitude, happy to understand that a job isn’t something I get, but that I give.

 

 

Halfway restraint

It’s Day 15 of my current 30-day challenge (oh, ‘scuse me, I mean “guided retreat”) and I have so far been able to avoid Facebook. Only once or twice have I made all three of my daily allotted visits; there may even have been a day I didn’t check in at all.

And I’m okay. As I predicted, the world still turns. I don’t feel completely disconnected or out of the loop–in fact, I’ve been spending more time reaching out to friends and loved ones by phone or email. Which brings me to a concern:

Now Gmail is driving me nuts. Argh! Because my old habit is to take a break at work, check Gmail, and then Facebook. But now that I’ve cut Facebook out of the equation I’m left staring at my inbox, wondering what I expect to find. I’ve got no shortage of email to deal with–more than 300 unread, for starters–but there’s no satisfaction in sifting through the electronic mess. I want something new to stimulate my impatient mind.

My impatient mind–the whole reason I’m tackling this challenge is to become more aware of what’s happening in my head, and impatience is a big part of it. Instead of always wondering what’s next, I am working to appreciate where I am now. My inbox has enough. My Facebook doesn’t need me.

And because I noticed in the first few days that I was coping with Facebook withdrawal by simply transferring my idle clicks to other websites or my new Tumblr blog, I’ve upped my efforts to stay offline in general, to avoid FB avoidance and instead consciously abstain from distraction in all forms.

Of course, for the next fifteen days my official goal remains the same as before–I’m on a roll already, and I wouldn’t want to have to face failure/start over, would I? But in practice, throughout the rest of the month I intend to hone my concentration, so that my morning meditations are less thought-filled and more breath-based, and my online excursions are more focused and fruitful.

I can be the poster child for a new trend of moderate internet usage: Surf responsibly!

I taught yoga to kids!

I taught yoga to first-graders on Friday and I loved it. It’s still too soon to tell, but it would seem my previous prediction, that I would love to teach yoga to kids, is accurate.

I tried to write in advance about how psyched I was to get into the classroom–I have a decent draft of a post I wrote on Thursday, and then immediately after class I made another attempt. But both efforts became emotional and overlong, and I became self-conscious. It wasn’t till I was relating my joy to a dear yogi friend that I realized the best way to publicly convey my experience teaching yoga to kids is simply to describe them:

Love. Energy. That’s about it.

Okay, maybe that sounds simplistic and New Age-y. Maybe that’s how I’m living life these days. All I know is that it was so easy to be with those little guys, to show them the sun song and watch them get so excited to learn something new. Not everyone was over-the-top enthusiastic and nearly no one stayed still in savasana, but who cares? Every one of those young people was one hundred percent authentic, and it was refreshing to spend time with them.

I suspected kids would be natural yogis, and I was proven right almost right away. After I showed them how to put their palms to their hearts and feel for vibrations at the end of the om song, one boy said, “my body is talking to me!” During sun song (after everyone learned how to make orderly yoga rows) we discussed how it feels to be in mountain and in warrior two. (Strong, good, exhausting, to name a few responses.) At the end, the namaste song was sung again and again, with a final encore due to popular demand. All in all, I’d say class was a success.

When will I teach again? We’ll see. I’m not worried; it’s summer and I’ve got plenty of good stuff going on. But I can’t help but create more lesson plans, so that I’m prepared if another chance presents itself. Because I had fantastic time sharing yoga with first-graders and see potential for myself as a yoga educator: I have lots to learn and much more to give!

 

Delicious hydration (recipe!)

I was browsing the latest issue of Yoga Journal the other day and came across an intriguing recipe for a homemade sports drink. I whipped up an impromptu liter, let it chill, and am now finding it thoroughly refreshing.

The recipe called for the juice of a fresh lemon but that wasn’t happening for me. So I added a spoonful of lemon juice, a squirt of honey, and a pinch of salt to a cup of hot water. I estimated the increased proportions for a 1-liter water bottle and it seems to have worked out well. (As with a neti pot, when in doubt, use less salt.)

I’m so grateful for this convenient, inexpensive solution to my hydration needs! And it’s also delicious….What’s not to like about honey lemonade? Hard to believe this tasty concoction is actually better for me than regular water, but apparently that’s how electrolytes work. Yay for rehydration!

Maybe say maybe

Last night I took part in The Butterfly Effect Tour, with an open mind and a ready heart.

As recently as a year ago I would have scoffed at the concept of yoga as community service. I know this because I specifically remember practicing at a meditation retreat last May and inwardly groaning when the teacher suggested we exhale a positive contribution to the world as we stretched our arms into warrior one. “Are you serious?” I thought. I’m all for yoga, and I’m all for positive contributions, but don’t tell me they’re the same thing, that asana is more than exercise.

How, I wondered, could my personal practice, my own selfish act of betterment, be portrayed as an act of generosity?

Last night I got my answer. Twee, the lovely lady who led the class, believes that a butterfly fluttering its wings in Bali can change the winds on the Gulf Coast. When we give good energy, it has to go somewhere, so why not send it out with intention? But we can’t feed the hungry in other countries before we feed the hungry in our own backyards, and we can’t even do that till our own appetites are sated, our own needs addressed. In a troubled world, you do your own yoga, heal your own heart so that it can better love others.

Maybe. Yes. It’s possible. That’s what Twee asked us to consider–to resist an automatic “no” and instead allow for what may be.  “Maybe say maybe,” she suggested.

So that’s what I did when she asked us to turn to the yogi next to us, lock eyes, and then help each other fly (aka come up into an assisted handstand). My first thought, after I’d choked back a wave of terror, was “absolutely not.” I can’t even do crow pose, much less a headstand or handstand. But my partner was willing, and as I helped her, I pressed against my own resistance and thought, “Maybe maybe.” And when it was my turn to try, instead of shaking my head I shrugged my shoulders. And yeah, I fell a couple times. But then I kicked up, and my new friend kept me stable, and I was flying, electric with the awareness of my own strength.

Maybe. Yes. It’s possible. By overcoming, or at least agreeing to confront, my fears on the mat, I am better able to acknowledge and face my fears in the world at large. I have a better understanding of what it means to feel frightened and to summon courage, and maybe that really does make me better able to help others.

Count me in for kirtan!

Kirtan is yoga-centric singing, and I like to sing. In the shower, in the car–wherever I think I can get away with it. Also, I am attracted to mysterious beauty. Thus I spent ninety minutes last night ensconced in a small yoga studio, raising my voice with others in praise, lamentation, and gratitude.

It was definitely spiritual, but more immediately it was a meditation on sound. As I chanted mantras and melodies again and again, the familiar became blurry and new syllables emerged. I got lost in the music, found a vision in the sounds, and felt utterly and absolutely fulfilled. I felt sated and at peace.

I would like to talk about the specifics of my kirtan experience, but that seems tantamount to describing a church service, or a choir practice, or a campfire singalong. Which is to say that it is something personal and worthy of firsthand experience. (Though if you have questions or want more details, you are welcome to comment or email me.)

The important thing to know is that kirtan is an opportunity for contribution and release. I felt expressive in a way that’s usually denied me. It was like getting to sing in the shower without my roommates hearing me. It was also like I was performing, in that I was giving effort and attempting harmony, but there was no pressure to “get it right.”

Because really, kirtan is about voicing love. I could feel the love last night, so fully, swelling in my chest and emerging past my throat in the form of music. We met to share love and be of service, gathering to raise funds and awareness for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. It was a privilege to be with people who appreciate that sometimes yoga is music, and I am so grateful to add the joyous component of kirtan to my practice.

Facebook face-off

It’s possible that the next thirty days might take longer than a month.

After taking a brief break to celebrate my successful attempt at meditating for thirty days in a row, I’m back on course and ready for another round of commitment. But because I am fairly confident I’ll have less of a struggle making myself meditate (it was actually hard NOT meditating yesterday), I’m upping the ante for my next Guided Retreat–and this one might take a while.

And though this is not officially a “30-Day Challenge” (Cheri Huber uses the kinder term of “Guided Retreat” in her oh-so-helpful book Making a Change for Good), I am seriously challenged already, on Day 1. Because I’ve chosen to practice compassionate self-discipline toward my addiction to technology, specifically to superficial connections. More specifically, to my Facebook obsession.

I don’t talk about Facebook much on this blog, and I think that’s a good thing: Aside from using the platform to connect with other yogis, it doesn’t have much to do with my healing journey. (Well, at least not much to do with helping my healing.) But since I’ve selected Facebook as the content through which to observe a process of addiction, the subject must be discussed.

Basically, I look at that website way too much. I have been a member since 2004, which is about as early as anyone who didn’t go to Harvard could be included. I didn’t know what I was signing up for back then, but I sure know what I’ve gotten into now: dependence on content that is mostly meaningless.

I crave connection just like every other human, and the tricky thing about Facebook is that it provides realistic glimpses of authenticity. I break into a genuine smile when I read good news or funny posts from friends and acquaintances, and I have experienced sincere sadness upon encountering upsetting comments. I frequently find links to articles that interest me, and I truly did feel warm and fuzzy when I saw how many people wished me a happy birthday on my wall a few weeks back.

But in addition to finding fleeting moments of value, I have wasted a LOT of time, and made even more assumptions, plenty of which are painful. I have scrolled newsfeeds far beyond the point of necessity. I have searched the profiles of people who are not actively in my life, and at times I have initiated contact of dubious merit. And although my own privacy settings are locked up tight, I have viewed photo albums of total strangers, just because one of their hundred photos tagged someone on my friend list and I am an indiscriminate clicker.

Why do I so frequently engage in petty perusal? I guess that’s what I want to find out. Partly, it’s habit. Regularly clicking on my browser’s “Facebook” bookmark is as instinctive as clicking on “Gmail” after all these years. Partly, it’s boredom or procrastination. At the first hint of idleness, Facebook is a go-to distraction. And partly, it’s that I want to belong. I like knowing what my (digital) peers are up to. It is nice to feel connected.

It’s this last reason that prompts me to explore my addiction as opposed to condemning it. I’m not going on a Facebook fast–the idea of quitting completely not only freaks me out way too much to qualify as a compassionate commitment, but I’m also not convinced total disengagement is the ultimate ideal. What I really want is to better understand why an online entity has such allure, and a thirty day guided retreat will give me the space and structure to investigate.

So, in keeping with the instructions that I select a “clear, compassionate, specific, and measurable goal,” I am limiting my Facebook interaction to three visits a day. If that seems permissive, consider that my previous usage was closer to thirty visits a day. I hope I’m exaggerating that number, but I’m probably not. At any rate, the new allotment is a definite reduction.

It will be interesting to see what my mind tells me as I resist the Facebook clicking…assuming I am able to observe the mind before instinct intervenes. Because this morning I used up one of my three allowances before I was even out of bed, and it happened because I wasn’t thinking: I just checked my email, saw there were photos tagged of me, and, blam. Facebook. Sigh. Two more shots for the rest of the day, or this Day 1 will be repeated tomorrow…